The Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears are coming into Week 10 with a certain amount of optimism despite their collective 5-12 record. The matchup may not be a national television event, but there are some interesting storylines for both teams. Can Justin Fields continue his fantastic streak of play? Will the Lions defense notch its second impressive performance in a row after a disastrous start to the season? Which team is further along in their rebuild after both teams sold at the trade deadline?
Let’s take a closer look at the game and make some predictions in On Paper: Lions vs. Bears.
Lions pass offense (14th in DVOA) vs. Bears pass defense (30th)
It’s pretty easy to see here where Jared Goff and the Lions passing offense has dropped off, and it has lined up almost perfectly with the amount of losses the Lions have suffered at the pass-catcher position. DJ Chark has been out since Week 4. Amon-Ra St. Brown has been dealing with an ankle sprain since Week 4—as has Josh Reynolds. Last week, the Lions were without Reynolds because of a back injury, and, of course, the Lions traded away T.J. Hockenson before the Packers game.
Unfortunately for Detroit, it looks like they’ll continue to be shorthanded this week with Hockenson still traded, Reynolds likely still out with his back injury, and Chark sidelined for at least one more game.
That leaves a somewhat healthy St. Brown and a bunch of backups. This week, it’ll likely be some combination of Kalif Raymond, Tom Kennedy, and newly-signed Trinity Benson, who didn’t make the initial 53-man roster. Without a big, physical presence, that makes the Lions’ receivers pretty one-dimensional again this week. So unless they’re playing a really bad pass defense, it could be an underwhelming performance from this group...
Well, what do you know? It’s a bad pass defense.
My charts suggest they aren’t nearly as bad as the DVOA ranking suggests, but they have been very bad in the last two weeks, which lines up with the sudden exits of linebacker Roquan Smith and pass rusher Robert Quinn—both of whom were traded in the past couple of weeks.
Their overall statistics are certainly below average. They rank 28th in yards per attempt allowed (7.6), 30th in dropback expected points added, but 10th in passer rating allowed (87.0).
However, that seems to be skewed by an unusually high amount of interceptions. The Bears have nine on the year (fifth-most), but I say “unusually high” because they only have 30 passes defended, which ranks 23rd in the NFL. In short, I think the high interception numbers are a fluke and will likely regress to the mean for the rest of the season, especially with a defense that ranks 22nd in coverage per PFF grades.
That said, their secondary does have some nice pieces. Veteran safety Eddie Jackson has paired well with rookie Jaquan Brisker as the last line of defense, and cornerback Jaylon Johnson is playing well in his third NFL season. Nickel corner Kyler Gordon, though, is the weak link in the chain, having allowed a 113.8 passer rating when targeted—which is often. He’s given up 43 catches for 551 yards and two touchdowns, per PFF.
Additionally, the Bears lack any semblance of a pass rush. They have the second-lowest pass rush PFF grade and just 13 sacks (t-29th). They also have the lowest blitz percentage in the league, so they seem happy with keeping quarterbacks upright, I guess.
Player to watch: Amon-Ra St. Brown vs. Kyler Gordon. As mentioned, Gordon is the weak link, and the Lions would be wise to try and get St. Brown—their best and only(?) threat in the receiving game—lined up opposite Gordon. Of course, the Bears will be clued in on this, so it’s possible they try to avoid this matchup at all costs.
Advantage: Even. I don’t have a lot of faith in Jared Goff with this set of receivers, even though he should have a fairly clean pocket all day.
Lions run offense (11th) vs. Bears run defense (28th)
The Lions run offense has clearly been slowed as of late, suggesting their early-season success was heavily reliant upon D’Andre Swift’s ability to create explosive plays. Here’s a more drastic look at the differences in the first four games vs. the last four games:
Lions running game:— Jeremy Reisman (@DetroitOnLion) November 10, 2022
First four games: 112 carries, 656 yards (5.86 YPC), 7 TDs
Last four games: 102 carries, 417 yards (4.09 YPC), 2 TDs
Given we’re dealing with small sample sizes here, these results shouldn’t be all that surprising. The Lions had four rushes of 50+ yards in those first four weeks and zero since. That was never going to be sustainable for an entire season. Still, it’s disappointing to see the Lions producing at a below-average rate right now.
Swift is slowly working his way back into the lineup, but with just seven carries over the last two weeks, it’s hard to imagine him being a big part of the rushing game plan this week. Which means Detroit will likely be without their explosive weapon.
Jamaal Williams is still in the midst of his best career season. Not only is his 4.3 yards per carry a career high, but he’s also on pace for his first 1,000-yard season—and he’s third in the NFL in rushing touchdowns.
With Swift, this is a potential top-10 unit. Without Swift, we’re talking average or maybe even below average.
The Bears run defense is objectively bad. They’ve given up at least 200 rushing yards three times this season, and the only times they’ve held their opponent below 4.6 yards per carry were against some of the least efficient rushing attacks in the league.
They rank 26th in yards per carry allowed (4.9), 25th in rush EPA allowed, and here may be the most important stat for this matchup: the Chicago Bears run defense ranks 29th in short-yardage situations, allowing an 80 percent conversion rate. That’s been a weak point for the Lions offense, so this could be a week in which you don’t have to be terrified of third and fourth-and-1s.
Player to watch: Frank Ragnow. Ragnow is clearly starting to feel better with his toe injury because his play has been steadily rising. He’s tallied a run blocking grade of at least 80 in each of the past two games, and the interior of the Bears defensive line shouldn’t be much of a problem this week. Attack. The. Middle.
Advantage: Lions +2.5. This would be a great day for Swift to make a full return, but we all know that isn’t happening. Still, even if he only gets five carries, there’s a chance he could break a big one.
Bears pass offense (27th) vs. Lions pass defense (26th)
As you can see, the Bears passing offense will not dominate a game. They’ve yet to finish a game with 200 net yards, and they’ve been stopped short of 100 in a couple of games.
But from the right column, you can also see that they’re starting to have a more efficient passing attack—meaning they’re getting more yards per attempt, turning the ball over less, and scoring more touchdowns. Here are Justin Fields’ splits between the first four games and the last five:
First four games: 33-of-67 (50.8%), 471 yards (7.0 Y/A), 2 TDs, 4 INTs, 58.7 passer rating
Last five games: 76-of-120 (63.3%), 851 yards (7.1 Y/A), 8 TDs, 2 INTs, 99.7 passer rating
Again, Fields is not throwing the ball very often, but he’s making more of his opportunities as of late.
That said, the Bears offensive line is not great. Fields has taken at least two sacks in every game and is averaging nearly four a game. Additionally, they are still lacking good receiving threats with Darnell Mooney proving he’s more of a No. 2 than a No. 1. The addition of Chase Claypool is a good one, but it’s unclear how much he’ll be incorporated into the offense this early. He played in just 26 snaps last week—though he did see six targets.
I don’t know, man. I’d love to be able to sit here and tell you all of the Lions’ pass defense issues have been resolved after last week’s breakout performance that produced nine pass breakups and three interceptions against Aaron Rodgers, but it’s hard to come to that conclusion with just one solid performance under their belt. Granted, the Lions were the healthiest they’ve been in the secondary—with Jerry Jacobs assuming a larger role, DeShon Elliott back at safety, and rookie Kerby Joseph playing his absolute best right now.
It’s just hard to ignore that despite that strong performance, the Lions rank 30th in PFF coverage grade, 28th in PFF pass rush grade, 30th in passes defended and 29th in passer rating allowed.
I want to believe. I really do. But there’s overwhelming evidence right now that the Lions’ performance last week was an exception, not the norm.
Player to watch: Kerby Joseph. It’s got to be the NFC Defensive Player of the Week. Despite the low passing numbers, Fields actually ranks fifth in the NFL in “intended air yards” so he’s not afraid to air it out. It’ll be up to Joseph again to display those ball-hawking skills vs. Chicago’s new deep threat in Claypool.
Advantage: Draw. The Bears aren’t likely to go wild in the passing attack, so this is probably not that important of a matchup. That said, Detroit needs to make sure Fields doesn’t connect on any of those deep shots, and get to the quarterback a few times (and bring him down).
Bears run offense (15th) vs. Lions run defense (26th)
Not sure why the Bears’ DVOA numbers are so low in the running game because they’re one of the best rushing attacks in the league by just about every other measure. They’re fourth in rush EPA, second in yards per carry (5.4), t-fifth in rushing touchdowns (10), and are averaging nearly 30 more rushing yards per game than anyone else in the league. And remember, they’re doing this while losing in most games.
They’ve surpassed 230 rushing yards in over half of their games this year, including each of their last four games. The key difference as of last has been an increased emphasis on utilizing Fields’ mobility. He currently leads the team with 602 rushing yards—408 of which have come in the last four games.
But Chicago can hurt you with their more traditional running game, too. Khalil Herbert has assumed RB1 duties from David Montgomery and is averaging a ridiculous 6.0 yards per carry.
The Lions run defense is slowly settling in. They’ve been far from outstanding, but they have found something that has worked out of the bye week. They’re funneling their defensive line inward to clog the middle, and relying on their physical defensive backs and linebackers to hold the edges.
While that’s worked, the Lions still remain incredibly undisciplined when it comes to stopping quarterbacks from scrambling, and that could be a huge issue this week. It has obviously been a point of emphasis in Detroit all week, but that is much easier said than done. We haven’t seen the Lions bottle up a mobile quarterback since the Ravens and Lamar Jackson last year, but this is a younger, less disciplined set of players they have right now.
Player to watch: Justin Fields. Here’s just one more ridiculous Fields stat to throw on the pile:
Advantage: Bears +3. I just don’t know how the Lions stop Chicago here. Every team goes into the week knowing if they stop the Bears rushing attack, they probably stop the entire offense—and almost none have been successful. That’s what happens when you have such a dangerous weapon like Fields. Detroit is young and vulnerable to misdirection, which the Bears are excelling at right now. This is trouble.
Last week’s prediction
On Paper moved to just 4-4 on the season after predicting a 26-20 loss to the Packers. I correctly identified a low-scoring affair that the Lions could win, but the very last sentence doomed me.
If this game is close in the final five minutes, who do you trust: A Lions team that hasn’t been able to close out games since Matthew Stafford walked out the building or Aaron Rodgers?
I fully expected Aaron Rodgers to close out the game with a win, and—though I was close—I clearly underestimated the emotional boost from the secondary (which, to be fair, was impossible to objectively predict... unless you’re Hamstradamus).
In the comment section, it was the very first On Paper comment that came the closest to the final score. Commenter duck-lion made the impressive prediction of 21-9 Lions, and then made a photoshop request after they realized they had won:
I think I won? Jeremy, just give me a picture of Aaron Rodgers’ tears. They will sustain me until next year.
Asked and answered:
This week’s prediction
The Bears come out with a +0.5 advantage, which properly displays just how close this matchup is. In a lot of ways, these teams mirror each other: bad defenses who want to rely heavily on their run game to win them ball games. If Detroit were fully healthy on offense, they’d be able to be the more balanced team and I think they’d be able to drop 30 on them. But with a depleted receiver room and a hobbled D’Andre Swift, I just don’t think they can keep up with the most dangerous player on the field: Justin Fields. Bears 31, Lions 24.